The Gemara is famous for offering multiple rabbinic opinions on any given topic. This wealth of opinions can lead to frustration for those encountering the Talmud for the first time. After diving deep into a sugya, my students will often ask — OK, but what is the answer? On today’s daf, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya offers a beautiful response to these students.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught: “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails well fastened are those that are composed in collections; they are given from one shepherd.” (Ecclesiastes 12:11) Why are matters of Torah compared to a goad? To tell you that just as this goad directs the cow to her furrow to bring forth life to the world, so too the words of Torah direct those who study them from the paths of death to the paths of life.
Rabbi Elazar compares the Torah to a tool meant to spur cows to till the earth and plant. Likewise, the Torah spurs us to plant ourselves on the paths of life. Of course, comparing the Torah to an ox goad causes some problems. After all, a goad is a long stick with a sharpened end which can be pointed in any direction. The Gemara ignores the violence of this imagery and asks: Can the Torah really be pointed in any direction, made to say anything you want?
Not to worry: The Gemara notes that the verse mentions nails, which are fixed in space and limit the range of motion. But this solution causes its own problems:
If so, just as this nail is diminished in size and does not expand, so too matters of Torah are gradually diminished and do not expand. The verse states: “Well fastened [netuim].” Just as this plant [neti’a] flourishes and multiplies, so too matters of Torah flourish and multiply.
Analogizing the Torah to nails also has its pitfalls. Perhaps, like nails, the Torah rusts and flakes off. Not to worry, says Rabbi Elazar. With a classic bit of rabbinic wordplay, he equates well-fastened nails (netuim) with plants (neti’a) to insist that words of Torah continue to grow like plants even though they are rooted to their principles.
But how many directions can the Torah actually grow in? The Gemara continues:
“Those that are composed in collections [ba’alei asufot]”: These are Torah scholars who sit in many groups [asupot] and engage in Torah. These sages render an object or person ritually impure and these render it pure; these prohibit an action and these permit it; these deem an item invalid and these deem it valid.
Rabbi Elazar reads the verse from Ecclesiastes as pointing not only to the diversity of rabbinic opinions, but to the fact that they are often diametrically opposed to each other! But as the Gemara noted over 1,500 years before my students, this opposition can be troubling for those who study rabbinic teachings.
Here Rabbi Elazar begins to answer my students’ question:
Lest a person say: How can I study Torah? The verse states that they are all “given from one shepherd.” One God gave them; one leader said them from the mouth of the Master of all creation, Blessed be He, as it is written: “And God spoke all these words.” (Exodus 20:1). So too you, make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit and the statements of those who permit; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.
Though the Torah grows in multiple directions, it is all rooted in the same source, the Divine voice communicating through Moses. Rabbi Elazar insists that the point of learning isn’t about deriving a single answer, but about developing the ability to understand all of these directions with insight and empathy — and to recognize that they all derive from the same place. On today’s daf, the Torah’s growth is not dangerous, but rather a sign of its rootedness, vibrancy and value.
Read all of Chagigah 3 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 12th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.